Polling has shown that for nearly five decades, slightly over half the American people have believed that abortion should be legal in some circumstances. Just over a quarter believe it should be legal in all circumstances, and about 17% believe it should be illegal under any circumstance.
The opinions of the American people have been remarkably stable on the subject. However, since the repeal of Roe, there has been an uptick in those who believe it should be legal in any circumstance and a downtick in those who believe it should be illegal in any circumstance. In the most recent polls conducted by Gallup, only 13% of Americans said that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.
A poll by Pew found about a dozen states where a majority believed that abortions should be illegal in “all or most circumstances.” I have not been able to find any poll in any state where there is anywhere close to a majority that believes it should be illegal in all circumstances. Recent Texas polling has the number of Texans with that view in the low teens.
Yet, Republicans in state legislatures across the country are pushing abortion restrictions that are clearly out of step with the nation’s mood. Why? Because typically only about 10% of voters show up for the Republican primaries, and virtually all of the 10-15% of Americans who believe abortion should be illegal in any circumstance vote in the Republican primaries. And because gerrymandering has made most November general elections irrelevant, Republican legislators must toe the line or face being voted out of office by angry anti-abortion primary voters.
It is a dilemma for which the Republican Party has no solution and which is unlikely to be resolved anytime in the foreseeable future. For most of the Americans who believe a fetus at the time of conception has all the rights of a person, their belief is a strongly-held religious belief. As result, they are not persuadable to moderate their view and cannot compromise on the issue.
And because the Republican agenda includes this and other positions that are largely out of step with the majority of the American people, it is unlikely that the party is going to be able to expand its primary voting base to dilute its fervent anti-abortion voters.
The depth of the Republican Party's abortion problem was on full display in Ohio’s referendum last week to raise the percentage needed to amend its constitution from 50% to 60%. The referendum was engineered by anti-abortion legislators attempting to improve their odds in another referendum scheduled for this fall, which would prevent the Ohio legislature from prohibiting abortion before fetal viability and guarantee an exception for the health of the mother. Ohio voters, who clearly favor this constitutional amendment, saw through the transparent attempt to derail it and trounced the proposal by a 14-point margin (57-43).
That margin is even more impressive than it may seem at first blush, because the election was a special election with only a 38% turnout. Anti-abortion activists typically overperform in low turnout elections. When Ohioans vote in November on the actual abortion amendment and turnout is up, the amendment will probably win by 20 points or more. Keep in mind that Trump won Ohio in 2020 by eight points.
The Ohio results come in the wake of voters in the red states of Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana solidly defeating ballot measures that would have given their legislatures the right to restrict abortions. In two blue states, California and Vermont, ballot measures ensuring certain abortion rights passed overwhelmingly.
As long as the Supreme Court had state legislatures handcuffed with the Roe ruling, Republican members of those bodies could demur to primary voters that they were powerless to restrict abortion. But after Roe was overturned, they were forced to act to survive their primaries. However, it appears that they alienated general election voters in the process.
The 2022 election was the first test of whether swing voters would be swayed by Roe being overturned and move them toward Democratic candidates. Many pundits have attributed the no-show of the Republican red wave in 2022 to the abortion issue, and some exit polls seem to confirm that was probably a significant factor. It is important to keep in mind that Roe was only overturned in June, just four months before the election and, critically, before many state legislatures had begun to crack down on abortions.
Historically, abortion has been listed by relatively few voters among their most important issues. But that may be because most viewed the issue as settled by Roe. With abortion back on the agenda in many states, that may well change, and especially with those all-important white suburban women who lean Republican but are also willing to switch sides. Most of these women are not “pro-abortion,” but they also know from personal experience the complexity and difficulties many women face with their pregnancies, and they resent rigid state laws limiting the options women have.
The only thing that will keep the Republican Party from suffering a real free fall from its extreme anti-abortion agenda next November is that swing voters also view the Democratic Party as driven to extremes by its ideologues. Or, as one of my friends likes to say, “The only thing keeping the Republican Party afloat is how god-awful the Democratic Party is.”